Off to Skepticon – Brief Blog Semi-Break

I’m off to Skepticon today, I’ll be gone through Monday — and I don’t know how my time or my Internet connectivity will be when I’m away. (Hotels usually have wireless, but they sometimes make you pay for it, and I’m cheap.) So I may or may not be blogging much, or indeed at all, for the next few days. (I’ll do a Fashion Friday piece if I can — I know you’re all waiting breathlessly to hear my verdict on the new shellac manicures — but I’m making no promises.) See y’all soon!

Greta in D.C. 11/12, at CFI-DC 5th Anniversary Celebration

One last reminder: I’m going to be speaking in Washington D.C. this Saturday, Nov. 12, at the Center For Inquiry DC Fifth Anniversary Celebration. My topic: “What Can The Atheist Movement Learn from the LGBT Movement?” Other speakers at the event will be Jennifer Michael Hecht, Ronald Lindsay, and Melody Hensley: plus there’ll be awards, schmoozing, and general fun. If you’re in the area, come by and say hi!

EVENT/ HOSTS: Center For Inquiry DC Fifth Anniversary Celebration
DATE: Saturday, November 12
TIME: 5:00 pm
LOCATION: Busboys and Poets, 2021 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20009 (14th & V / U Street Cardozo Metro)
TOPIC: What the Secular Movement Can Learn from the LGBT Movement
SUMMARY: See above
OTHER SPEAKERS/ EVENTS: Poetry by Jennifer Michael Hecht; Ronald Lindsay; Melody Hensley; awards; schmoozing; and more!
COST: $45. Premier Seating: $100. Cost includes dinner; premiere seating includes reserved seating plus $55 tax deductible contribution. Registration required.

Hope to see you there!

Karaoke, First Times, and Some Thoughts On Adventure

So if you try something new, and you don’t really like it — does that mean you made a mistake?

As some of you may already know, I did karaoke for the first time a couple of months ago. I did it as part of this Camp Quest fundraising challenge, where two teams of atheist bloggers (or rather, one team versus PZ Myers all by his lonesome cephalopod self) competed to raise money for Camp Quest… a competition that turned into an escalating series of silly forfeits if our side won. Our side won — Go Team Awesome! — which meant Adam Lee had to grow a beard, Matt Dillahunty had to do the Atheist Experience show in drag, Jen McCreight had to learn to ride a bicycle on video, and JT Eberhard had to wax his legs and shave his head. And I had to pop my karaoke cherry, and post video of it on my blog. (I know. Ridiculous. We ought to stop acting like children. We raised over thirty grand for Camp Quest. So shut up.)

Back on topic: I was more than a little anxious about the karaoke thing. It wasn’t like a massive phobia or anything (although I did play up the “fear and loathing” aspect of it for entertainment/ fundraising purposes). It was just something I didn’t particularly want to do. But a lot of people said, “Oh, you’ll like it. Once you get over the nervousness, karaoke is big fun.” And I was open to the possibility that this might be the case… and while I was apprehensive, I was also prepared to enjoy myself.

As it turns out — yeah, not so much. I do actually like to sing, I have a reasonably okay singing voice, and I’m happy to sing in groups of friends. But I don’t like doing being the center of attention doing things that I’m not especially good at. Particularly when it’s in an unfamiliar situation. (And particularly not when it’s being put on YouTube.) The fact that my voice was shot from being at the conference all weekend didn’t help. Plus I’m generally not that crazy about hanging around in bars (don’t like crowds, don’t like noise, have complicated feelings about alcohol). So, yeah. Standing at the front of a room singing into a cheap microphone in a loud, crowded bar? As it turns out — not my cup of tea.

But, in a weird paradox, while I didn’t enjoy the actual experience of karaoke, I very much enjoyed the fact that I was doing it.

Largely, of course, because I was doing it for a good cause. (Go Camp Quest!) But also for its own sake. And while I think it’s unlikely that I’ll do it again (although I suppose that, if I’m going to follow my own advice about being willing to try anything twice, I ought to do it at least one more time), I’m not in the least bit sorry that I did it.

Because that’s the nature of adventure. [Read more...]

Should Atheists Have Lots of Kids?

“Religious people are reproducing at a much higher rate than atheists. Religious extremists especially. And as we know, people tend to stay in whatever religion they’re brought up in. Should atheists be having more children, so we can counteract this trend?”

When I give talks and do Q&A afterwards, this question comes up surprisingly often. A modified version of it came up at my talk in St. Cloud earlier this week. I don’t think it’s a notion that’s shared or even seriously considered by most atheists… but it does get asked at these talks with some frequency. So I thought I’d answer it here in the blog.

No.

We should not have children just so we can keep up with the breeding rate of religious believers.

Strategically, it’s not necessary. And morally, it’s — what’s that word I’m looking for? — wrong.

Let’s take the moral question first.

There are probably worse reasons to have kids than breeding an atheist army. But offhand, I can’t think of many. (Medical experiments? Slave labor? Meat?) Children are not a weapon in your ideological battle. They are not a means to an end. They are an end in themselves. What with them being human beings and all.

As far as I can see, there is pretty much one good reason to have kids. And that’s that you want them. You love kids. You like kids. You think kids are interesting. You enjoy their company. You want to share your ideas and ideals with them, and to learn from them yourself. You want to bring them into the world, and participate in the difficult and rewarding process of helping them become autonomous adults. Every child a wanted child, and all that.

Of course parents want their kids to share their values and ideas. Lots of parents have kids because they want a part of themselves to live on, to be carried into the world beyond their own lifespan and capacities. But the healthy, not- fucked- up parents want that part to be independent. They want their kids to be themselves, to think for themselves, to eventually make their own decisions and take their own responsibility for them. They don’t want them to just be a cog in a Meme Perpetuating Machine. If we have lots of kids just so we can breed the next generation of atheists… then how are we any better than the Quiverful families, having lots of kids just so they can breed the next generation of fundamentalist Christians? If we don’t behave better than the religious extremists we’re fighting, then what on earth is the point?

Do I want a world without religion? Hell, yes. I’m working hard towards that end. But there are obvious moral limits. I don’t, for instance, want to force people out of religion, or restrict people’s right to practice their religion, by violence or threat or law. And this idea falls well outside my moral limits. Very, very far outside.

I want a world without religion because I think that would be a better world. And a world in which parents see their kids as pawns, an army for the next generation of their ideological battle? (And, not incidentally, a world in which the parents see themselves and their partners as breeding stock for that army?) That is not my idea of a better world. I would rather have a world with religion than live in that world.

So it’s morally wrong. That’s the most important thing.

But it’s also strategically unnecessary. [Read more...]

Sorry for the goof!

Dammit to hell. The “Very Big Atheist Conference” post wasn’t supposed to go up until April 1. Typepad screwed up with the scheduling. I’ll reprint it then, with all comments that had already been made on it. Sorry for the mixup!

Brief Blog Break/ Open Thread

I’m going to be out of town from Thursday, Dec. 16 through Monday, Dec. 20. Neighbors and catsitters will be looking after our apartment and our girls, but I probably won’t be blogging again until a day or two after I get back. I’ll check in on the blog periodically to dump spam and put out fires if necessary, but other than that, I’m taking a break from it.

In the meantime, consider this an open thread. Talk about whatever you like. Just play nice. If you want a topic to start you off, how about this: Compare and contrast the literary works of William Blake with a small Russet potato. Give three examples each of similarities and differences. See you in a few days!

Sex Discrimination or Sexual Harassment? Pick One!

In the workplace, to deal with concerns about sexual harassment, is it better for men to steer clear of any conversations about sex with women — even if it means potentially discriminating against female colleagues?

Or is it better to treat colleagues of all gender equally — even if it means acting in a way that might be seen as offensive and harassing?

800px-Haeckel_Chiroptera_Plecotus_auritus_2 You may have hear about the bat fellatio brouhaha at the University College Cork in Ireland. (I heard about it first on Pharyngula.) As part of an ongoing debate about animal and human behavior, Dr. Dylan Evans, male, showed a female colleague (as well as several other colleagues) a widely-publicized scientific paper in a peer-reviewed journal on fellatio in bats. As a result, this colleague accused him of sexual harassment. (His accuser claimed that there had been a pattern of past inappropriate behavior, which he denied.) The university found that there was no basis for the accusations of a prior pattern of harassing behavior… but nevertheless concluded that showing his colleague this paper was inappropriate and unacceptable, and that it constituted sexual harassment. And on the basis of that one incident, they have imposed on Dr. Evans a two-year period of intensive monitoring and counseling. (Here’s a copy of the original complaint, as well as other documents related to the case.)

This specific situation is actually a bit messy, somewhat more complicated than it appears on the surface. And this specific situation isn’t what I want to get into today. Instead, what I want to get into today is a question raised in the Pharyngula comment thread:

When it comes to sexual matters in the workplace — sexual matters that legitimately have professional relevance to the workplace in question — should men treat female colleagues differently from male colleagues?

*

Thus begins my latest piece on the Blowfish Blog, Sex Discrimination or Sexual Harassment? Pick One! To find out how trying to protect against sexual harassment can lead to sex discrimination – and what I think we should and should not be doing about it — read the rest of the piece. (And if you feel inspired to comment here, please consider cross-posting your comment to the Blowfish Blog — they like comments there, too.) Enjoy!

Why “Life Has To Have Been Designed” Is a Terrible Argument for God

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Designer “Just look around you. Look at life, and the universe, and everything. Doesn’t it seem like it had to have been designed?”

A lot of arguments for religion are very bad indeed. A lot of arguments for religion aren’t even arguments: they’re deflections, excuses for why the believer isn’t making an argument, bigoted insults, expressions of wishful thinking, complaints that atheists are mean bad people to even ask for an argument, and heartfelt wishes that atheists would just shut up.

But some believers do take the question “Why do you believe in God?” seriously. Some believers don’t want to believe just out of blind faith or wishful thinking; they care about whether the things they believe are true, and they think the question “What evidence do you have to support this belief?” is a valid one. They think they have good answers for it. They think they have positive evidence for their spiritual beliefs, and they’re happy to explain that evidence and defend it.

The argument from design — that life had to have been designed, because it just looks so much like it was designed — leads the list of these answers. According to Michael Shermer’s How We Believe, the argument from design is the single most common reason religious believers give for why they believe.

Since these people are taking atheists’ questions about their religion seriously, I want to return the favor, and take their religious answer seriously.

And I want to talk about why this is really, really not a good answer. At all. Even a little bit.

Have You Heard of This Darwin Fellow?

Eye The argument for design argues that the evidence for God lies in the seemingly inexplicable complexity and functionality and balance of life: of individual life forms, of specific biological organs and systems, of the ecosystem itself.

“Look at the eye!” the argument goes. “Look at an ant colony! Look at a bat’s sonar! Look at symbiotic relationships between species! Look at the human brain! They work so well! They do such astonishing things! Are you trying to tell me that these things just…happened? How can you possibly explain all that without a designer?”

Charles_Darwin Not to be snarky, but: Have you heard of this Darwin fellow?

I’m assuming that I’m not talking to creationists here. Creationists definitely do not count as people who care about reason and evidence and whether what they believe is consistent with reality. I’m assuming that I’m talking here to reasonably educated people, people who accept the basic reality of the theory of evolution…but who still think that God had to have been involved in it somehow. I’m assuming that I’m talking to people who understand that the theory of evolution is supported by a massive body of evidence from every relevant field of science (and from some that you might not think of as relevant)…but who still think that evolution, while a jolly clever idea, is still not quite sufficient to explain the complexity and diversity and exquisite high functioning of biological life.

To those people, I say: You really need to study evolution a little more carefully.

Stages_in_the_evolution_of_the_eye_(de) The theory of evolution is completely sufficient to explain the complexity and diversity and exquisite high functioning of biological life. That’s exactly what it does. The whole point of evolutionary theory is that it explains exactly how life came to be the complex and amazingly balanced web of interconnections that it is, with species beautifully adapted to their environments — not through design, but through natural selection and descent with modification. It explains it beautifully, and elegantly, and with no need for any supernatural designer to explain anything.

Descent with modification; the survival and reproduction of life forms that are best able to survive and reproduce; great heaping gobs of time. That’s all it takes. (Here’s a good primer on what evolution is and how it works; for a more detailed explanation, you can check out Why Evolution Is True by Jerry A. Coyne, or The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins, or Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters by Donald R. Prothero, or… oh, you get the idea.) The more familiar you become with evolution, the more you understand that it is more than sufficient to explain what seems at first glance to be design in biological life.

And in fact, biological life is an excellent argument against God or a designer.

Why? Because so much of this supposed “design” of life is so ridiculously piss-poor.

The Three Stooges School of Design

Theistic evolution Yes, there are many aspects of biological life that astonish with their elegance and function. But there are many other aspects of biological life that astonish with their clumsiness, half-assedness, inefficiency, “fixed that for you” jury-rigs, pointless superfluities, glaring omissions, laughable failures and appalling, mind-numbing brutality. (Here’s a very entertaining short list.) I mean…sinuses? Blind spots? External testicles? Backs and knees and feet shoddily warped into service for bipedal animals? (She said bitterly, getting up to do her physical therapy on her bad knee.) Human birth canals barely wide enough to let the baby’s skull pass…and human babies born essentially premature because if they stayed in utero any longer they’d kill their mothers coming out? (Which sometimes they do anyway.) A vagus nerve that travels from the neck down through the chest only to land back up in the neck…traveling 10 to 15 feet in the case of giraffes? Digger wasps laying their eggs in the living bodies of caterpillars…and stinging said caterpillars to paralyze but not kill them, so the caterpillars die a slow death and can nourish the wasps’ larvae with their living bodies? The process of evolution itself…which has brutal, painful, violent death woven into its every fiber?

You’re really saying that all of this was designed, on purpose, by an all-powerful God who loves us?

Low back pain Evolution looks at all this epic fail, and explains it neatly and thoroughly. In the theory of evolution, living things don’t have to be perfectly or elegantly “designed” to flourish. All that matters is that they be functional enough to survive and reproduce, and to do so more effectively than their competitors. In fact, in the theory of evolution, not only is there no expectation that the “designs” be perfect or elegant — there is every expectation that they wouldn’t be, since every new generation has to be a minor adaptation on the previous one, and there’s no way to wipe the slate clean and start over. And the comfort or happiness of living things matters not in the slightest bit to the process of evolution…unless it somehow enhances the ability of that living thing to survive and reproduce.

The argument from design looks at all this epic fail, and answers, “Ummm… mysterious ways?”

Before and After Science

Origin of speciesIf we didn’t know about evolution, the argument from design might have some validity. Even Richard Dawkins, hard-assed atheist that he is, has acknowledged that atheism, while still logically tenable before Darwin, became a lot more intellectually fulfilling afterward.

But once you know about evolution — not just about Darwin, but about the rich and thorough, broad-ranging and finely detailed understanding of life that evolution has blossomed into in the 150 years since On The Origin of Species — the argument from design collapses like a house of cards in a hurricane.

The theory of evolution provides a powerful, beautiful, consistent explanation for the appearance of design in biological life, one that can not only explain the past but predict the future. And it’s supported by an overwhelming body of evidence from every relevant field of science, from paleontology to microbiology to epidemiology to anatomy to genetics to geology to physics to…you get the point. The argument from design explains nothing that evolution can’t explain better. It has massive, gaping holes. It has no predictive power whatsoever. And it has not a single scrap of positive evidence supporting it: not one piece of evidence suggesting the intervention of a designer at any point in the process. All it has to support it is the human brain’s tendency to see intention and design even where none exist, leading to the vague feeling on the part of believers that life had to have been designed because…well…because it just looks that way.

And if “it just looks that way” is the only argument you can make for why life was designed, you’re going to have to find a better argument.

Also in this series:
Why “Everything Has a Cause” Is a Terrible Argument for God

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheism Is Not Narrow-Minded

Scarlet letter Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

Most atheists say, “I don’t see any good evidence for God… but show me some good evidence, and I’ll change my mind.” So why are atheists seen as narrow-minded? Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.